The blogger as the intellectual of the network society

I publish here the first chapter of my current article “The blogger as the intellectual of the network society”. Dealing with the question, what comes after the old intellectuals of the times of the mass media will be vanished from the public sphere, the article starts with a journey to the reflections of the intellectual at the end of the twentieth centruy. The whole article will feature quotes about the position and the role of the intellectual in the network society, the changing of the mass audience to the segmented audience, a analyses of the work, the life and the blog of the Austrian journalist Robert Misk, dealing with the question if he is a “blogging intellectual”. The conclusion will feature three types of blogging intellectuals.

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The blogger as the intellectual of the network society

Markus Bekendahl, an example of a blogging intellectual

 If we think of intellectuals names like Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ulrich Beck, Jürgen Habermas, Noam Chompsky, Anthony Giddens or Slavoj Žižek emerge in our minds. The problem with these people is that some of them are dead and those who are not are old. For example the average age of the persons rated in the “2012 Cicero Ranking of the 500 most important German intellectuals” is 66. But a short view on the ranking of the “100 top global thinkers” published by the “Foreign Policy” magazine shows some younger people, so maybe this is only a German problem. Anyway, reason enough to ask the question what comes after these people who have vanished from the public sphere? The first approach to this question is to figure out what means to being an intellectual.

Reflections of the intellectual at the end of the twentieth century

The idea of both rankings is the same. Intellectuals are a small group of people who have influence on society. They are some kind of elite who lead the society in general like Bill and Hilary Clinton, or in a specific field like Björn Lomborg in the field of climate politics. But this concept of an intellectual is not the only one. Another common concept is to identify intellectuals by their profession. In this theory every person who does intellectual work like scientists, authors or journalists are intellectuals. Indeed in the time of printed media and TV there was a strong connection between the profession and the role of the intellectual. But under the circumstances of the internet with its simplified publication possibilities these connection may be weakened. To figure out though what it means to be an intellectual nowadays, we have to consider the role of the intellectual in the 20th century.

In his famous BBC radio lecture “Representations of the Intellectual” Edward Said, an American literary theorist and public intellectual, sketches two different types of intellectuals.

The first one refers to Antonio Gramsci, an Italian writer, politician, sociologist, philosopher and linguist. Gramsci´s starting point is the difference between being an intellectual and having the function of an intellectual in society. In his opinion “all men are intellectuals, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals.” For him the people who perform the intellectual function in society can be divided into two different types. The first ones are the classical intellectuals, such as teachers, priests or administrators, who continue to do the same things from generation to generation. The second ones are organic intellectuals. These intellectuals are directly involved in the organisation of class interests, or the interests of an enterprise. They have the double function to reflect the current social condition and to change minds or expand markets. Applying this definition to our present mode of accumulation, professional roles like the marketing-expert or the fashion photographer might fit to this definition of the organic intellectual. Or in order to summarize it in the words of Edward Said: “Today, everyone who works in any field connected either with the production or distribution of knowledge is an intellectual in Gramsci´s sense.”

Conversely to this democratic definition of an intellectual Said opposes the definition of an intellectual by the French philosopher and novelist Julien Benda. In Benda’s point of view intellectuals are a small elite of exceptionally gifted and morally endowed philosopher-kings who constitute the conscience of mankind. Their function is to uphold eternal standards of truth and justice that which are precisely not of this world. But as Said argues these exceptional people are not completely out of this world. They “are never more themselves than when, moved by metaphysical passion and disinterested principles of justice and truth, they denounce corruption, defend the weak, defy imperfect or oppressive authority.” Because of their high moral standards they have to be in an almost permanent opposition to the status quo. As high Benda positioned the role of the intellectual as harsh was his criticism to real intellectuals of his time. To cooperate with the state and to serve the interests of the political elite was some kind of crime for him. The real intellectual has to be willing to die for his beliefs.

If we think about Benda´s version of the intellectual only a few individuals emerge in our minds. Only people like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Salman Rushdie, AI Weiwei are able to stand the high standards of Benda´s version. The opposite occurs when we think about Gramsci’s version. From Gramci´s perspective a lot of people even from our own social circle like journalists, academic professionals or computer analysts are to be seen as intellectuals. Such people have a less specific role, as Gandhi´s lead of a revolution, but a broader effect on our society. The consequence of the development of the mass intellectual is that intellectuals speak and deal in a specialised language which can only be understood by the members of the same field.

Thus in the 20th century the role of the intellectual changed. Applying the categories of Foucault the “universal” intellectual was replaced by the “specific” intellectual. The characteristic of the “specific” intellectual is that he works inside a discipline but is able to use his expertise outside his specific field, like Bono, the lead singer of U2, who is deeply involved in social and political causes. As Said argues nowadays the intellectual, not a social class, is decisive for the workings of modern society. But if the intellectual is always around us, doesn´t he vanish and becomes just another professional?

To separate the intellectual form the knowledge worker Said adds a specific public function to the role of the intellectual. “The intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, a philosophy or opinion to, as well for, a public.” Proceedig from this thesis Said concretises the role of the intellectual at the end of the last century. For him the intellectual is highly involved into public affairs. His function is “to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être [his meaning of life] is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.” His actions are although based on set of universal principles: that all human beings are able to expect fair standards of behaviour concerning freedom and justice from worldly powers or nations, and that purposeful or accidently violations of these standards need to be testified and fought against. In Saids role of the intellectual lies a deep fusion between being and saying. He has to say, after a lot of reflection, what he beliefs, and not what is convinient. And he although wants to try to persuade others of his point of view. By doing so, the public and the private part of his life are interconnected. The history, the values, the writings and positions of the intellectual which base on his experience enter the social world, where people decide about war, freedom and justice. In the moment an intellectual publishes his words or work he enters the public world. Because of his private involvement an intellectual can´t be just a representative of a cause, a movement, or position.

Summarising the role of the intellectual at the end of the last century as Edward Said saws it, he is a person who reflects, based on universal principles, society in-depth and articulates his opinion to and for a public. Because his opinion is based on his beliefs and does not represent a specific political party or company, the intellectual is an authentic speaker for an oppressed subject or people. In this way, intellectuals perform their own style of life and social performance. Saids version of the intellectual is a mixture of the democratic intellectual in the sense of Antonio Gramsci and the intellectual as a philosopher-king in the sense of Julien Benda. But differential to Antonio Gramsci´s version of the intellectual in Edward Saids version the questions if the intellectual has to organise people or the masses is quite open. Another open question in Saids version is role the mass media in the life of an intellectual.

Geert Lovink, a dutch media scientist, criticised in 1997 Saids’ concept in this way that he [Said] did not analyse the „dramatic changes of the public spehere himself” (Lovink 1997). Developing his arguments from the statement of „Electronic Civil Disobience” that the new forms of power are “those that locate the arena of contestation in cyberspace”, he argues that the days of the paper intellectual, and by the way, the days of Foucault’s discursive power, are over. Our system without alternative, remember the argument of the system relevance of the banks during the financial crises, „does not need the magical power of words any more in order rule. It is this sense that we [are] actually witnessing the much-vaunted ‘End of Ideology’.”

As mentioned above, with the end of ideology the role of the intellectual as an opinion leader slowly vanishes. But he does not thinks that the intellectual just becomes another knowledge worker; he sees a new type of intellectual, the „virtual intellectual” appearing, which shows, features the following characteristics. S/he has a will to design, to construct the public part of the cyberspace in combination with the ability to reflect and criticise the new media from all possible perspectives. They have a specific mixtures of local and global cultures and digitised and non-digitised source materials and both real and screen only experience. S/he is strongly connected with other e-writers and readers. But mostly he is defined by not being the political intellectual of the old kind. He is no longer focused on the closed hermetic Magnus Opus that defined the ‘age of the author’. And, because in the age of cyberspace everyone can speak for himself, he declines to represent unprivileged off-line groups. Under the new technological environment the public sphere itself will be more and more a product of technical media, no longer connected to places like the coffee house, the salon or the boulevard.

Lovink has a quite radical perspective on the role of the intellectual and the public sphere in the age of cyberspace. I agree with him that the cyberspace transforms the public sphere, but the public sphere has not completely migrated into the cyberspace. It is true that nowadays any public affair has to be represented in the cyberspace to play any role in our society, but not exclusively. It is more like a mixture of both sides of reality, the physical and virtual representation. His point of view that nowadays representation is not needed any more, because everybody has technical access to cyberspace and so can speak for themselves, is simply wrong. Even if the technological access is guaranteed, a lot of people do not have the competence to articulate their own opinion for several reasons. Some of the silent masses do not have the competences to articulate their opinion either written or visualised, and, as the Edward Snowden affair shows, some of them are afraid of this new public sphere where everything published seems to be controlled by [the] big brother. Therefore representation is necessary even nowadays.

During this journey to the reflections on the intellectual of the 20th century we encounter with four different concepts of the intellectual which I would like to summarise here.

The first one is the concept of Antonio Gramsci which distinguishes the classical intellectual from the organic intellectual as a person who reflects on society and organises the masses. The second one is the concept of the intellectual as a philosopher-king by Julien Benda, who has to be the conscience of mankind, based on exceptional moral standards. The third one is the version of Edward Said characterised by the function of the intellectual to speak for an oppressed and silent group or topic. The last one is the “virtual intellectual” of Geert Lovink whose main task is the organisation of the public part of the cyberspace. Elementary to all concepts is the reflection on society (…)

© Philipp Adamik 2013


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One thought on “The blogger as the intellectual of the network society”

  1. Since I gave my comment on “Der Freitag” concerning the article “Tag des propheten”, I would like to give here more precisions.
    The Gramsci organic intellectual and the Benda philosopher-king have, when they melt the two functions in one person, my preference because they relate their ideas with the praxis. Further, the organic intellectual could in some extend be considered as part of the people with whom he fights. We find such intellectuals in South America within the conscious impowering movement (Paolo Freire) and in India within the gendhian movement. I integrate also Martin Luther King in this intellectual group. For me, the last european (succesfull) intellectual implementing this praxis was Günther Anders, who helped Germany to get rid of the nuclear powerplants. May be you know some other.
    Were as the Said intellectual puts himself on a higher level than the people he speaks for. He looses quite rapidely the sens of reality. The french philosopher Bernard Henry-Levy is corresponding to this type of intellectuals.

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